Legends of Myself 119

Posted on October 14, 2019

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119. Cloverdale, 1964. Incorrigible

For my fourth foster home, Children’s Aid again assigned me to Cloverdale. I don’t know whether it was because they still envisioned a rural life to cure young Ted of being who he was, or whether it was because of the particular qualities of my new foster mother, again, a cure for me. Perhaps the two ideas were inextricable, part of a single package.

Anyway, there I was, auditioning a new home. My new foster mother was serious, fair-minded and determined. She was the foster parent who would be my everyday. The foster father hardly appeared at all. Also living in that home was another Indigenous foster kid, of my age or very close. The home was a small farm, which the foster mother handled while her husband went into Vancouver to work (as I discovered.)

I don’t really have a clear picture of my Cloverdale home, mostly because I wasn’t there long. I remember that the other foster kid took me out to the henhouse to show me how he collected eggs, one of his chores. He crushed one of the eggs so that the clear and the yellow squeezed out of his hand. Just because. Then we went to the barn where he sat down on a stool to milk the cow, which chore he delinquentized as well by squirting milk at random around the barn. I suppose he was showing off. Looking at it at a distance, I can see someone’s “reform” programme faltering. Looking at it close up, it was a reform programme that Ted didn’t want to participate in.

What I mostly remember about Cloverdale is the school, which I sense as being modern and new at the time. The school I attended there in 1957 had the same feeling.

I remember sitting around the school library, reading a book about the Trojan war, Odysseus and his Trojan horse, a not-quite version of the Iliad. I also remember pursuing my ongoing interest in astronomy. One astronomy book from that library told me that the Sun was a smaller than average star, an interesting detail because now we know the Sun to be larger than the average star. The Sun hasn’t grown since I was young, of course. It’s just that (and this should have been an obvious pitfall even then) the stellar mix has since been heavily salted and weighted towards the small, with stars now added in that were too small and too dim for instruments to detect in 1964. The simple astronomical picture of my growing up has almost no resemblance to the astronomy of now.

As for the classrooms, I was at the school long enough to have a win and to have a fail. The fail was a speech that I was supposed to do. I was so terrified of making it that I simply declined to write the speech in the first place. The teacher kept on asking if I was ready, and I kept on saying no. I once considered it an example of change since childhood, since, frankly, as an adult, I rather enjoy getting up and talking in front of people. But I realize that that doesn’t fit with what happened at my previous school, my oral report on Galileo to the science class, which I did without trouble. What happened in Cloverdale, I guess, was that I was just too new. Unlike most North Americans, I don’t fear public speaking more than death. But I had limits in 1964.

square root of 2My classroom win was in remedial math. My (temporary) placement there was not an insult this time, but a necessary setting for one of life’s delicious moments, math nerd division. Our teacher was going from student to student, asking questions. He asked me, “Ted, can you tell me the square root of two?”

“One point four one four two one three,” I said.

A change of expression, eyebrows at attention. “You’re not supposed to be in this class, are you?”

(Well, you see, I had to come by just for this, this moment right there, thank you.) But, no.

I didn’t stay in that school long enough to know anybody socially. I remember overhearing in the hallways my first public discussion of semen, which the boys referred to as “chizz.” The etymology and possible origination of that word I think I won’t explore. I’ll just leave it there.

As for home, that was all about the foster mother, who was an intense presence. I won’t say that she was actually rigid or egotistical or badly intentioned. On the contrary, I think she always wanted to be fair—high standards for herself, high standards for others—and she consulted me for instance about what clothes I would like to wear to school. But there was an underlying ominous sense of purposefulness, a sense that my fellow foster child and I were the project in hand. My psychological preference as a child travelling alone was to hide like a cat under the furniture, in stranger’s houses the preference always was to hide, but it was obvious that she wouldn’t let me do that. How could I even begin to feel comfortable there?

And I didn’t like farms, either.

And I didn’t like Steveston. (It’s not you, it’s me.) (Maybe.)

vancouver direction_signI remained in Steveston long enough to go to the rodeo (from the scheduling of rodeos now, that might have been May) but one day, no more than three weeks after I arrived, I went out on the highway and hitchhiked out of there. On the way I stopped off in Richmond to collect my bicycle. My friend brought me to where it was stored, leaning against the basement wall exactly as I had leaned it when I had left it there those weeks before.

“My mom wouldn’t let me ride it,” he said.

Then I rode my bicycle into Vancouver, where, I suppose, I was caught. This time Children’s Aid, and, I guess, my new foster mother, were determined not to go along with my plans, and they trundled me right back to Cloverdale that same evening. But I was stubborn, too. I ran away again the next day, and this time the other foster kid came with me. I think he just wanted to join in the fun. Yes, I taught him that particular kind of fun, and I’m to blame for that. But I wasn’t likely to hang around just to set a good example for others, as if that were even an issue.

And I wasn’t doing it for fun.

exclamation markI remember after we’d made it to Vancouver, the two of us walking along Granville Street near Broadway, when by a truly enormous coincidence our foster father from Cloverdale came driving by. (That’s when I found out he worked in Vancouver.) Both parties sprouted the traditional exclamation marks over their heads, and we two took off like roadrunners while Cloverdale Dad tried to navigate the traffic patterns to get over to us, but he wasn’t able to find us again. I guess he had a story to tell when he got home, though.

Eventually, the two of us made our way to my fellow foster kid’s home, and immediately his mother called Children’s Aid. A social worker arrived and they plotted together. Everybody was still determined to send me (and of course him) back to Cloverdale, but, until they could arrange that, the social worker asked Mama to watch over me in the meantime, which she agreed to do. At my short acquaintance, I found her a tough, grim, unpleasant woman, and she indeed did eagle-eye me in her kitchen for several hours. But something distracted her from the other room. She went through the door, and half a minute later, I ducked out the back door, scooted along the side of the house and stole away a third time.

Of course, I was always caught. I fundamentally didn’t know where to hide.

And of course I was in danger. In danger from the street. Even more in danger from Children’s Aid.

After they found me again, I remember then an interview with a social worker, not finally to understand me, however, because they never actually got around to that discussion, but in order, apparently, to induce me to self-incriminate. (Yes, it will be taken down. Yes, it will be used against you. No, we won’t tell you that beforehand.)

The other boy said that I’d talked him into running away, she explained to me. Did I?

No, I didn’t, I said to her.

Did I?

No, I didn’t, I said to her.

incorrigible

The agenda in her questions seems self-evident, and later statements by Children’s Aid suggest malice. I believe powerfully that she was fishing for a justification, a legal premise, to convict me of the special child crime of “incorrigibility”, to hoist me into Bisco, Brannan Lake, that one—the BC Pen gone juvenile. And, oh, maybe the law against self-incrimination wasn’t considered to apply when it’s your social worker who’s trying to plant you behind that barbwire fence. A barbwire fence that was in fact and in policy an integral part of the child welfare system at the time.

I don’t think that social worker was a friend of mine. I don’t think that even she thought so.

Of course I was a problem to all of them. So what? I was a problem of their own creation. If they hadn’t stolen me from my father, the problem wouldn’t exist. And, my, my, if I really was pied-pipering all the children into a hobo life on the streets, why were the only ones affected other foster children? No, again, that was their issue, not mine. And if they could create me as a runaway, which they had, then which of them was up for a time behind bars?

Rather than take adult ownership of their self-made institutional problems, it looks an awful lot like they were willing and weighing plans to scapegoat a boy, me, into one of the most notorious and abusive juvenile hellholes in the history of Canada.

I was in deep danger, but I didn’t yet know it. Brannan Lake would have destroyed me. Absolutely. The outcome would have been violence, because prison is violence, even when you do it to children.

And violence has symptoms of violence.

And, let’s remember the beginning, shall we? Let’s follow the sequence from six peaches and a package of Fizzies stolen by a 12 year old first offender to three weeks in Juvie, to two years in foster care, punctuated and coming to melodramatic climax with a sentence to the notoriously abusive Brannan Lake Correctional Facility. Is that our logical sequence? Is that our rational result?

If so, Jean Val Jean, move it on over. Loaf of bread, meet 6 peaches and a package of Fizzies.

None of this is an exaggeration, and what Brannan Lake was is a part of the historical record. Children’s Aid admitted at the very end that Brannan Lake was their contingency plan. However, they decided instead to make one more play. They called my father and asked whether he could suggest a home for me to live in.

And so, less than a month out of Richmond and four escapes later, I came once again to live in Vancouver.